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Then: Aren't You That Guy from A Very Potter Musical?
Now: Aren't You That Guy from Glee?
And so it goes in the world of show biz. It all started a couple of years ago with a group of students in the Department of Theatre & Drama, just messing around, putting together a musical parody of the Harry Potter movies. To share it, a video was posted on YouTube. Now A Very Potter Musical, combined with other productions by the group, dubbed Team StarKid, have had almost 48 million views on YouTube.
Yes, you read that right. The original was taped at the Walgreen Drama Center as part of the Basement Arts series, where students are free to color outside the lines. The original creative team included Brian Holden, BFA ’08, Nick Lang, BFA ’08, and Matt Lang, ’09. Darren Criss (’09) and A.J. Holmes (’11) co-wrote the music.
Two years later, most of the cast are alumni, except for Joey Richter, still a senior. Today StarKid Productions is based in Chicago. Subsequent efforts have included A Very Potter Sequel and, just this past February, Starship, a musical comedy set on an alien planet inhabited by a race of giant bugs.
Darren Criss played Harry Potter. Now he’s singing his heart out every week on the hit TV series Glee. A native of San Francisco, Criss came to the University of Michigan in part because his father had grown up in Detroit and had fond memories of games at the Big House. But Darren had also heard good things about the U-M theatre program. “I just didn’t want to have never experienced the Midwest,” he says. “And the snow didn’t bother me; it was more a novelty. I knew I could always leave and go home!”
Darren was active in Basement Arts; as a senior he was cast in a main stage University Production, Pride and Prejudice. As to serious drama, he “would kill” to do Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee. But in this economy, he says, he considers himself lucky to be working at all. After graduation in 2009, he relocated back to his native west coast, to Los Angeles this time, trying to get launched like everyone else, auditioning for every part that fit his type. You saw him on the crime series Cold Case and in a recurring role on the short-lived Eastwick.
On his fourth try for Glee, reading for a more conservative character this time, Darren followed a hunch: he cut his long curly locks and left his guitar at home. He sang Rodgers and Hart. That was on a Monday; by Friday he found out he would play Blaine, a member of the singing group the Warblers from the fictitious Dalton Academy, rivals of the show’s central cast and high school, the New Directions glee club at McKinley High.
Since last November, Criss has appeared in episodes regularly. One of Glee’s main cast members over at McKinley High, Kurt, played by Chris Colfer, is openly gay. Because of constant harassment and bullying—being shoved up against lockers, having an ice-cold Slushy thrown in his face, waiting stoically for the daily dumpster toss by the football team—he transferred to Dalton Academy.
As Blaine, Darren plays a potential love interest for the character Kurt, but also a steady mentor and source of strength for the bullied and defeated character. At Dalton Academy, not only are gays accepted, glee club is cool!
While most assume the actor who plays Blaine must surely be gay, Darren has had to confess to an adoring gay fan base that he is, indeed, straight. “It’s no different from [Glee actors] Max Adler playing a homophobic bully or Heather Morris as a ditz,” Darren told Ellen DeGeneres who applauded his portrayal of a confident gay teen.
The launching pad for Darren’s celebrity was when the Warblers sang Teenage Dream, a huge hit for pop star Katy Perry. Within days, the Warblers’ version shot up to number one on iTunes.
The truly exceptional arrangements, Criss says, are all attributable to The Beezlebubs, an a cappella group from Tufts University. Criss has a remarkable voice and has been featured in many solos since his first Glee appearance. He has a calmly confident charisma that only fuels his popularity.
Now his days are fast and furious. Any notion of free time is but a distant memory. He’s on call for tapings of Glee, brought in as often as three or four times a day. In response to the inevitable question—Will you be written into the show as a regular cast member?—Criss says, “I’m just happy to be a part of whatever’s going on. I like my school—Dalton Academy—and being a Warbler. So I’m really fine either way. I was raised to be thankful for what comes my way.”
As to his overnight celebrity—you’re likely to see him on red carpets at awards shows these days —he takes it in stride. “It might be harder if I weren’t so sociable, or if I were working on a project I didn’t like, that was a compromise. I’m getting recognition for something I love.”
When asked about the confidence he exudes, Criss says, “It’s all smoke and mirrors.” But his former theatre professor Janet Maylie commented, “In Darren’s work in the Acting for Camera Class, he was always focused and relaxed. He allowed the camera to come to him. He had no fear. He was also very funny.”
“Darren had a talent for physical comedy,” adds another professor, Malcolm Tulip. “He even studied commedia dell'arte in Italy. Those skills served him well in ‘clown class’,” what students call Physical Theatre 371.
Has Glee done anything to raise the respect for glee clubs in high schools around the country? Darren certainly hopes so. “If anyone threw a Slushy in a kid’s face at my high school in San Francisco, they would have been expelled,” he says. He talks about the “surreality” of the atmosphere on the show and can’t imagine any of the good-looking, talented cast being anything but accepted at a high school in real life. “I would be happy if Glee has empowered any high school kid to feel good about what he does.”